Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Mayor-elect de Blasio's education decisions signal end to Bloomberg era

Posted By on Tue, Dec 31, 2013 at 10:55 AM

During much of the last decade, New York City’s school system became a fervent symbol of the education reform movement. The nation’s largest school system has operated under mayoral control since 2002, when the State Legislature gave Mayor Michael Bloomberg nearly complete authority over NYC's schools. Bloomberg made Joel Klein chancellor of city schools and together they ushered in a number of controversial changes such as appointing school board members. They also paid aggressive attention to testing, and implemented what many viewed as increased accountability of teachers.

And Bloomberg's been a huge supporter of charter schools, which proliferated during his tenure.

Though NYC was not the first city to turn to mayoral control, the city’s model of school governance was closely watched by parents, educators, and politicians around the country – including in Rochester. Buoyed by scandalous stories about New York’s failing schools, Bloomberg’s decision-making went almost unchecked. There was the infamous rubber room, where city teachers on disciplinary leave or probation would spend their days doing nothing while still earning their salaries and benefits. And the formidable political influence of teachers unions came under greater public scrutiny.

To some degree, Bloomberg’s methods were vindicated by some increases in test scores and graduation rates. But the Bloomberg style of education reform may have been dealt a serious blow as NYC Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio chose Carmen Farina, a former teacher and principal, as the new chancellor of the city’s schools. Farina’s appointment was widely seen as a signal to the education community that the Bloomberg-era is over.

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Monday, December 30, 2013

New York will be a drone research site

Posted By on Mon, Dec 30, 2013 at 4:20 PM

The Federal Aviation Administration says it wants to see drones sharing domestic airspace with commercial flights by 2015. And the FAA has designated six research sites around the country to help reach that goal, including one in New York.

According to an article in USA Today, the sites will work on different aspects of drone use. Griffiss International Airport near Utica will be charged with determining how drones and passenger aircraft can avoid collisions, especially in the Northeast’s congested airspace. The FAA received 25 applications for the work, which is supposed to create 100,000 jobs and infuse the economy with $82 billion.

This is not New York State’s first experience with drones. Many antiwar protesters, including some from Rochester, have been arrested and charged with trespassing and similar offenses at the National Guard base outside Syracuse. The base is used to pilot drone attacks in the US war against terrorists.

But the protesters say that the drones often kill and injure civilians, and that the attacks have fueled anti-US sentiment through large swaths of Muslim countries. And they say the operations base near Syracuse makes the Finger Lakes region vulnerable to reciprocal terrorist attacks.

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Quack in A&E's wall of integrity

Posted By on Mon, Dec 30, 2013 at 3:44 PM

Well, that didn’t take long. A week after the A&E network suspended production of Duck Dynasty due to show patriarch Phil Robertson's homophobic remarks in GQ, A&E blinked. And Robertson is back.

In its defense of ending the suspension, A&E officials say that Robertson expressed his personal beliefs, not the network’s, and that the show isn’t about his beliefs.

The network will also begin airing public service announcements that promote “unity, tolerance, and acceptance.”

Duck Dynasty is a financial bonanza for A&E. It’s a reality show takeoff on the Beverly Hillbillies where backwoods thinking is elevated to new heights of Americana. Duck Dynasty isn’t just about waterfowl; it's more about family dynamics and regional culture. And the show has millions of fans as well as multiple merchandising deals.

Some media industry observers came to the early conclusion that A&E couldn’t win this PR battle. If it took a position that chastised Robertson, they would lose viewers and the money that comes with a hit show. If they stood by and silently supported Robertson, they would open themselves up to criticism, particularly from the LGBT community.

A&E’s initial decision to put Robertson on hiatus was the right one. Robertson, citing mostly religious views, compared homosexuality to bestiality. And he’s allegedly made offensive remarks about African Americans, essentially praising the Jim Crow South.

Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal were among the first politicians to come out in support of Robertson. Palin talked with her usual breadth of knowledge about the Constitution and Robertson’s right to free speech. And Jindal was upset because, he said, no one criticized singer Miley Cyrus for her sexually-charged antics during a recent awards show.

But to Palin’s point, Robertson’s freedom of speech has not been denied. He has the right to say what he wants, but that doesn’t mean there are no consequences for such disturbing comments. Just ask former MSNBC host Martin Bashir.

And Jindal is just plain wrong. Cyrus was both widely admired and criticized for her public display. But more importantly, as offensive as some viewers may have found Cyrus, she did not give an interview talking about gays and God or the virtues of racism.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see that A&E’s damage control is short-lived. It frequently isn’t long before individuals like Robertson say or do something else equally provocative, partly because they often feel vindicated by decisions like A&E’s.

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State will finish detention center work

Posted By on Mon, Dec 30, 2013 at 1:34 PM

Vinnie Esposito, Finger Lakes regional director for Empire State Development - FILE PHOTO
  • Vinnie Esposito, Finger Lakes regional director for Empire State Development
[UPDATE 4:08 p.m.] County spokesperson Justin Feasel just issued this response to the state's letter:

“Monroe County has maintained that we will only relocate our Children’s Detention Center with both a short-term and long-term solution in place. While we are appreciative of the State’s efforts to develop a short term solution, unfortunately the long-term answer lies solely in the hands of Legislature Democrats. If Minority Leader Andrews truly cares about this project, she alone could put politics aside and provide the 20th vote to make the our community’s vision for CityGate a reality.”

Original post: Monroe County will be able to move its children's detention center to the Industry Residential Center in Rush as of January 10, say state officials.

Vinnie Esposito, regional director of Finger Lakes Empire State Development, sent a letter to county officials this morning confirming the date. The letter says that the state will move ahead with the necessary renovation work at Industry. That work had been halted temporarily at the request of county officials, specifically Deputy County Executive Dan DeLaus, it says.

The letter says that state officials have decided, in concurrence with Democratic Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle and Republican state Senator Joe Robach, to continue with the work.

"At this point, nearly 90 percent of the project had already been completed: approximately $1.1 million of capital improvement costs had been incurred, all project materials had been ordered and delivered to the site, and only approximately $100,000-$150,000 of labor costs remained," Esposito says in the letter.

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Week Ahead: Lots of swearing-in ceremonies; trial of antiwar activists begins

Posted By on Mon, Dec 30, 2013 at 9:30 AM

In governments all over Monroe County, new and returning elected officials will take the oath of office this week in preparation for the new year.
Lovely Warren. - FILE PHOTO
  • Lovely Warren.

The most anticipated swearing-in is, of course, that of Rochester Mayor-elect Lovely Warren. There will be a  private swearing-in ceremony on Wednesday, January 1, followed by a community event at noon on Saturday, January 4.

The Saturday event includes Warren’s inaugural address, as well as guest speakers and special performances. It will be held at the Auditorium Theatre, 885 East Main Street. Doors open at 11:30 a.m. and seating is on a first-come basis.

Warren will also take part in a 2 p.m. interfaith worship service at Sacred Heart Cathedral, 296 Flower City Park. The public is invited.

City Council’s swearing-in ceremony and organization meeting is at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, January 2, in council chambers at City Hall, 30 Church Street. The organization meeting is where the city makes appointments and sets salaries. Christine Carrie Fien

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Friday, December 27, 2013

More troubles for Pittsford project

Posted By on Fri, Dec 27, 2013 at 1:03 PM

The rocky road continues for the proposed Westport Crossing apartment project at 75 Monroe Avenue in the Village of Pittsford. Westport Crossing is being developed by a subsidiary of Mark IV Enterprises.

The village board voted this morning to set a special meeting for 8:30 a.m. on Monday, December 30, to discuss hiring a consultant to evaluate the project's existing environmental review.

Historic Pittsford and two village residents wrote to the board to ask for a new environmental review for the project. At issue is whether the existing review is valid for the current proposal, which some village officials and residents say differs from what the village board approved last year. The consultant would evaluate whether the village has a valid reason to conduct a new environmental review, Mayor Bob Corby said this morning. 

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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

[UPDATED] Assembly Democrats want increase in child day care funding

Posted By on Tue, Dec 24, 2013 at 11:01 AM

For years, Monroe County's child day care subsidy funding has been a concern of local child advocates. And during the 2014 county budget debates, a proposed $1.3 million cut in the county's contribution to the programs became a major issue.

Child advocates and Democratic legislators pushed for the funding to be restored. But administration officials, along with Republican legislators, dismissed the requests with a pat response: the issue was being debated in the wrong legislature in the wrong city. In short, they told critics of the cut that the state needed to boost its funding for the subsidies.

Well, yesterday Assembly Democrats released a report on child  care subsidies for low-income families and their chief recommendation was to increase funding for the assistance, though they don't recommend any specific amount. The report says that the amount of funding available for the subsidies has remained flat while the need has risen. The report sums up the result in this passage:
"As a result, many low-income families are denied child care assistance each year. Low-income women are forced into the least expensive child care of last resort in order to maintain gainful employment. These child care arrangements are often unregulated and unstable. For other women, any child care would be cost-prohibitive and so they are forced to leave the workforce in order to care for their child(ren)."
The report also says the state should loosen some restrictions on access to the subsidies and should streamline some of the administrative aspects of the program. It also calls for the state to enact paid family leave.

Assembly Democrats can talk about boosting child care subsidy funding and access all they want, but their proposals aren't going anywhere without the support of Senate Republicans. And it seems that the GOP senators haven't said a whole lot about boosting child day care subsidy funding.

County Executive Maggie Brooks, who's been viewed as an up-and-comer in state Republican politics, has an opportunity to step up if she truly believes that the state needs  to provide more funding for child day care subsidies. She could push — publicly, privately, or both — for Republican leaders in the state Senate to work with the Democratic leaders of the state Assembly to put that funding increase in place.

[UPDATE] County spokesperson Justin Feasel just sent me an e-mail reminding me that Brooks and Legislature Republicans have submitted a memorializing referral — essentially an official letter to another government body — calling on the Assembly, the state Senate, and Governor Andrew Cuomo to increase funding for the day care subsidies. (It's the first item in this packet of legislation.)

"In the coming year, Monroe County will continue to pursue more child care funding from New York State," Feasel said.

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King seeks more power for Regents

Posted By on Tue, Dec 24, 2013 at 10:19 AM

Earlier this year, State Education Commissioner John King made the unprecedented decision to move two of Buffalo’s most troubled schools under the supervision of Johns Hopkins University and Erie 1 BOCES. The arrangement, which weakens the control of superintendents and school boards, is referred to as an educational partnership organization or EPO.

He also had a sharp public exchange with some members of Buffalo’s Board of Education, and warned that further action would be taken if the city’s schools failed to show some improvements.
New York Education Commissioner John King. - PHOTO PROVIDED.
  • Photo provided.
  • New York Education Commissioner John King.

That day may be rapidly approaching, according to a recent article in the Buffalo News. King told the BN’s editorial board that he isn’t confident Buffalo’s school officials can turn around their failing schools. And he remains concerned about the lack of progress at Lafayette High School, one of the schools now under the EPO’s control.

King told the editorial board he wants an expansion of the Board of Regents’ power. He wants the Regents to have the authority to take control of failing districts.

Superintendent Bolgen Vargas has repeatedly said that if student achievement in Rochester’s schools doesn’t improve soon, what has happened in Buffalo’s school district can be expected in Rochester’s. Vargas has frequently talked about the sense of urgency he feels in turning around the city’s failing schools. And it was one of the reasons he says he recently turned to the heads of the area’s colleges for help.

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Monday, December 23, 2013

Dems float detention center funding plan

Posted By on Mon, Dec 23, 2013 at 4:41 PM

Democrats in the Monroe County Legislature say they have a plan to pass financing for a new children's detention center — the center is already in the works. But Legislature Republicans have already rejected the idea once.

This latest proposal is just another aspect of a boiling — and increasingly sprawling — feud in the Legislature. The spat started when Democrats blocked a big borrowing measure as a way to try force a Legislature-led review of county-linked local development corporations. The children's detention center, and a developer's efforts to bring a Costco to Rochester, have now been sucked in.

This afternoon, Democrats sent a letter to County Executive Maggie Brooks — and a press release — detailing what they say is a way forward for the detention center project. But the matter could quickly get bogged down in technicalities, and the county administration and Legislature Republicans will probably seize on those details to slap back at the proposal.

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Comptroller's report details state authorities' payrolls

Posted By on Mon, Dec 23, 2013 at 9:57 AM

This post has been corrected.

State-created public authorities have about 104,000 employees that they pay just under $7 billion — $762 million of which is overtime pay, says a new report from the state Comptroller's Office.

The report is hardly a rebuke of the spending; it's mostly a straightforward account of staff salaries, overtime pay, and bonuses. But it does caution that the authorities operate without oversight that other state agencies have (which aren't foolproof themselves, as New Yorkers have witnessed time and again).

And it warns that data supplied by the authorities through the state's central reporting system "shows that authorities and their boards have created compensation and benefit structures — including those for employees at the highest compensation levels — that vary widely among authorities and, in some cases, from those for state employees," the report says.

The only Rochester-area authority included in the report is the Rochester-Genesee Regional Transit Authority. It wasn't among the top 10 authorities in terms of payroll size or overtime costs, but it was the 10th-highest in terms of the number of employees receiving overtime pay, the report says. A total of 696 employees received average overtime pay of $4,057.

The overtime is all related to operations, whether it's one driver covering for another's absence or a mechanic working to get a bus back into service after an unexpected breakdown, says Maryalice Keller, chief people and brand officer for RGRTA. 

But RGRTA ranked fourth in terms of bonuses paid to its employees, the report says. During the 2012-2013 budget year, which ended March 31, 336 RGRTA employees received a total of $584,797 in bonuses, the report says. On average, they received $1,740 in payments.

The Comptroller's Office report explains that the bonuses are OK, as long as they are tied to performance goals and either approved by the authority's board or spelled out in a contract. RGRTA's plan is tied to performance goals, which are developed annually by leadership and approved at the start of each fiscal year by the authority's board. The goals include ridership increases and increasing how often the buses arrive on time.

Each year, the authority has to submit an annual report to the state's Authorities Budget Office, and that report includes details on employee pay. The annual report shows that some of RGRTA's top executives earn bonuses well in excess of the average employee, though that scenario isn't unusual in public authorities or private businesses. For example:
CEO William Carpenter was paid a $181,008 salary and a performance bonus of $27,750;
Harold Carter, who's since left RGRTA but was its in-house counsel, was paid a $125,401 salary and a performance bonus of $37,905;
Robert Frye, who's since left RGRTA but was its chief financial officer, was paid a $153,952 salary and a performance bonus of $42,208;
Chief Information Officer Miguel Velazquez was paid a $119,909 salary and a $33,475 performance bonus.

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